Recruiting and Retaining Teachers of Color: A Demographic Imperative

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Policy makers and educational leaders recognize the need to increase the racial and cultural diversity of the teacher work force in the United States. Recruiting and retaining teachers of color is considered a “demographic imperative” to address concerns about a predominantly white teacher workforce and to counter the mismatch between the racial and cultural backgrounds of students and teachers.[1]

Over 54 four percent of the public school student population in the United States is made up of students of color, yet only 18 percent of the teachers in the nation’s work force are teachers of color.[2]

Percentage Distribution of Full-Time Teachers and Student By Race

National Center for Education Statistics 2007-2008[3]

  White Black Hispanic Asian Two or More Races American Indian or Alaska Native Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders Other
Teachers 82.9% 6.9% 7.2% 1.3% 0.9% 0.5% 0.2% 0.7%
Students 55.5% 15.5% 21.7% 3.7% 21.6% 0.9% 0.2%  


A literature review by Villegas and Irvine (2010) suggests that teachers of color have been found to produce more favorable academic learning results for students of color than their white colleagues. Benefits to students of color when taught by a same-race teacher or when exposed to a teaching force that is racially/ethnically representative of the student population were found to be the result of practices such as:  maintaining high academic expectations, engaging in culturally relevant pedagogy, developing caring and trusting relationships, serving as advocates, mentors, and cultural brokers, as well as confronting issues of racism through teaching.[4]

As a strategy for narrowing the achievement gaps among students, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is advocating for the recruitment of more African-American and Latino teachers. Duncan stated, “If we want to close achievement gaps, if we want to make sure that many more African-American and Latino male students are graduating rather than dropping out … having those teachers, having those role models, having those coaches is going to make a huge difference in their lives.[5]

While it is critical to aggressively recruit teachers of color to provide a diverse workforce, it is also essential that districts attend to issues of retention. A 2010 review of the literature regarding retention and turnover of teachers of color examined important factors that affect the retention of teachers of color.  Betty Achinstein a researcher from the University of California, Santa Cruz spoke about problems in retaining teachers of color, “They’re leaving, and they’re leaving in droves. It’s a deep concern, if we care at all about the imperative to diversify the teacher workforce.”[6]

According to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania,[7] minority teachers, mainly blacks and Latinos, have been changing schools and leaving the profession at higher rates than whites.  The turnover gap is widening.  Richard Ingersoll, a national expert on teacher workforce issues, stated, “There’s been a victory for recruitment but not a victory for retention. If we want to solve this minority teaching shortage that’s been long discussed, then there’s going to have to be more focus on retention. We’re hiring more minority teachers but also losing more of them. It’s like a leaky bucket.” During the 2008-09 school year, over 19 percent of teachers of color changed schools or left the profession, compared to 15.6 percent of white teachers – a turnover rate for minority teachers 24 percent higher than for white teachers .[8]

 The study from the University of Pennsylvania and the literature review from UC Santa Cruz suggest that teachers of color are leaving because of poor working conditions in the high-poverty, high-minority urban schools where they are concentrated. Teachers say they want more influence over school direction and more autonomy in the classroom to teach what works with their students.[9]

As part of their analysis of working conditions experienced by teachers of color, Achinstein and Ogawa (year) interviewed and observed 18 teachers of color over a five year period. They found that these highly committed, well trained, and credentialed teachers of color were frustrated by standardized tests and scripted lessons. Some teachers reported that their supervisors objected when they tried to teach things that were “not in the manual.” Achinstein said, “I was really struck by the teachers of color who wanted to use texts that related to the lives of their kids and build on their linguistic assets, and found they couldn’t because of school policies and structural barriers.” She added, “They’re taking on school roles against their will in ways that perpetuate inequality.” In interviews, the teachers shared that they were required to focus on students who could improve their test scores, and leave the rest behind. It appeared to them that they were being closely watched by administrators to make sure they were following “district mandates.” Of the 18, three left teaching and five others changed schools within five years. The teachers stated that part of the reason for leaving was the negative attitudes of school administrators toward students of color.[10]

Policy factors can contribute to cultural issues that have implications for the workplace and conditions that contribute to teachers leaving their schools and the profession. Policy makers should create opportunities to seek out the opinions of teachers of color about policies and reform practices. At the 2010 annual conference of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the US Department of Education hosted a teacher roundtable to gather input from educators regarding their views about the nation’s education system and policy issues. Participants in the roundtable included teachers of color representing a diversity of experiences and content areas. Themes emerged from the roundtable dialogue that addressed policies that shape working conditions in the schools that seem similar to those identified by Achinstein, et al. (2010).[11] Several veteran educators pointed out that that the overwhelming emphasis on test scores has eroded the tendency for many teachers to share best practices and serve as the informal mentors to new teachers. According to round table participants, teachers find themselves in competition with each other over whose test scores will be better. They hope that Obama’s reform plans will “rekindle the spirit of cooperation that has been lost over the last decade” and allow teachers to focus less on worrying about how their students were performing compared to the students in other classrooms and more on positive learning outcomes for their students.  A second theme at the round table was the need for effective and authentic systems of evaluation.  Participating teachers expressed their desire for more methods of evaluation that contributed to improving their craft. Teachers at the round table advocated for evaluation systems that give teachers the feedback necessary to make teachers better, rather than a mere checklists.[12] 

In the near future, decisions will be made that will shape federal and state-level legislation and policies relating to the educational workforce.  As these policies are crafted, careful attention should be paid to potential implications for recruiting practices and teacher working conditions that affect retention. Calls to diversify the teaching workforce, reduce the achievement gap, and address inequities in school raises the importance of listening to teachers of color about their experiences in schools.  When teachers of color say they are leaving the workplace because of low expectations and negative attitudes about students of color, lack of support for culturally relevant and socially just teaching, and limited dialogue about race and equity,[13] it is time for policy makers to listen to what teachers of color are saying and take action to make the necessary changes to  keep teachers of color in schools.

[1] Achinstein, B., Freitas C., Ogawa, T., & Sexton, D. (2010). Retaining teachers of color: A pressing problem and a potential strategy for “hard-to-staff” schools.  Review of Educational Research, 80 (1), 71–107. Do1: 10.3102/0034654309355994

[2] National Center for Educational Statistics. (2008) Table A-27-1. Number and percentage distribution of full-time teachers, by   level, sector, and selected teacher characteristics: School years 1999–2000 and 2007–08. Retrieved on January 6, 2011  from and

Table A-4-1. Number and percentage distribution of the race/ethnicity of public school students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade: October 1988–October 2008 Retrieved on January 6, 2011 from

[3] Ibid

[4]  Villegas, A., & Irvine, J. (2010) Diversifying the Teaching Force: An Examination of Major Arguments. Urban Review, 42, 175–192. doi 10.1007/s11256-010-0150-1

[5] CNN Wire Staff (August 28, 2010) Education secretary says U.S. needs more minority teachers. CNN Politics. Retrieved on January 6, 2011 from

[6] Burns, M. (2010, December 28) Minority teachers: Hard to get and hard to keep. Miller-McCune.

Retrieved on December 28, 2010 from

[7] The Ingersoll and May study is still in draft form and has been presented for review to the Penn Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Center for Research in the Interest of Underserved Students at UC Santa Cruz.

[8] Burns


[10] Burns

[11] Achinstein, B., Freitas C., Ogawa, T., & Sexton, D. (2010). Retaining teachers of color: A pressing problem and a potential strategy for “hard-to-staff” schools.  Review of Educational Research, 80 (1), 71–107. Do1: 10.3102/0034654309355994

[12] Johnson, J. (2010, November 30).Black educators share teachers’ concerns and hopes. Blog. US Department of Education. Retrieved on December 28, 2010 from /blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/jemal.jpg/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/jemal.jpg

[13] Achinstein

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